Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Amid all the talk of what’s wrong with the Rebels, one thing that appears to be right is the development of freshman big man Mbacke Diong.
Diong began the season as a bundle of long-term future potential, as the athletic 6-foot-11 prospect from Senegal played just one season of high school ball in the United States before arriving at UNLV. But since the start of Mountain West play, he has emerged as a possible difference-maker in the present, especially on the defensive end.
His raw numbers are modest — he’s averaging just 1.6 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game on the season — but playing time hasn’t come consistently until recently, when backup center Cheickna Dembele was forced to sit out the last three contests due to a concussion.
Diong has responded when called upon. While serving as the primary reserve at center over the last three games, he has played 10.7 minutes and contributed beyond his box score stats.
Against SJSU, it was Diong who made the game’s biggest play, grabbing an offensive rebound in the final seconds and making a free throw to send the game to overtime (where the Rebels eventually won). Diong finished with six points, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 15 minutes.
There aren’t a lot of minutes available to Diong, as he’s behind freshman star Brandon McCoy on the depth chart. But Diong’s defensive performance has been so strong that head coach Marvin Menzies may need to find more opportunities to get him on the court — assuming he can maintain his recent level of play.
Interior defense has been the Rebels’ biggest issue in Mountain West play. Boise State, San Jose State and Utah State were all able to exploit UNLV’s soft middle with layups and dunks off dribble penetration, often because the Rebels’ big men were slow to help or unable to challenge shots.
That hasn’t been a problem for Diong. With his outstanding length, athleticism and ability to leap quickly, he has proven to be the team’s best rim protector despite his limited playing time.
While McCoy is still grappling with a typical freshman learning curve when it comes to playing collegiate-level team defense, Diong is already providing value on that end of the court.
Through three Mountain West games, UNLV opponents have shot 54.8 percent when McCoy is on the court. When Diong is on the floor, opponents’ shooting plummets to just 35.6 percent.
During that same span, McCoy’s block rate is 2.1 percent, while Diong has rejected 9.5 percent of opponents’ shots.
Diong’s defensive prowess has also made a dent on the scoreboard. In his 32 minutes over the last three games, UNLV has outscored its Mountain West opponents by 26 points. In McCoy’s 95 minutes, the Rebels have been outscored by 19 points.
Menzies has shown trust in Diong late in games, often subbing him in for McCoy on important defensive possessions. That could foretell a bigger role for Diong as the season progresses.
At Air Force on Wednesday, Diong will have an opportunity to make a case for more minutes. While only 32 percent of the Falcons’ shot attempts come around the rim, they do make close-range shots at an efficient 60 percent. An intimidating presence around the basket could dissuade Air Force from taking those shots — and Diong may even send a few into the stands.
Diong spoke to the media a few weeks ago, after just turning 18 years old. He said that the coaching staff has given him a very defined role.
“When I play, I think they expect me to bring energy,” Diong said. “To give everything I have on defense, on offense. I think that’s what they’re looking for me to do.”
It’s a bit too early to anoint Diong as a defensive savior — 32 minutes spread across three games is a very small sample — but the early returns are promising. And given Menzies’ history of developing big men, it’s not ridiculous to have high expectations for Diong.
Instead of a project, Diong might end up being a big part of the solution, and soon.